Debate. Three ethnographic texts about the Guatemalan Indigenous woman

Susan Kellogg1

The anthropological study of gender and of women has been greatly developed since the publication of the book Woman, Culture and Society (1974),2 which contains, among its magnificent essays, that of Lois Paul, “The Mastery of Work and the Mystery of Sex in a Guatemalan Village”, where we are offered a fairly expressive description of the Mayan women of Zutuhíl language from San Pedro de la Laguna. Paul’s ethnographic work reflected the approach of individual communities devoid of their history, typical of cultural anthropology from the middle part of the XX century; however, the essay captures the essential paradox of complementarity and patriarchate that lays in the heart of the relationships between the sexes of the Mayan.3 Three recent ethnographies from American scholars, Judith N. Zur’s, Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala (1998); Linda Green’s volumes, Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala (1999); and Diane M. Nelson’s, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala, show the development of ethnographic approaches in the study of gender. They also present the variety of paradigms on which nowadays scholars base their work to analyze the identity of sex.

These ethnographies influenced by the anthropological attempts to place people and places more accurately in history and to communicate the reality of war, violence and poverty they endure also illustrate the Mesoamericanist turn towards the study of Guatemala and its recent history covered in blood.4 Alter summarizing the contents of each volume, I move towards a thematic and comparative discussion, and I emphasize three points: first, how each author [sic] the issue of gender; second, how each of them defines her study unit; third, how each of them places her study unit within time flow and events.

Judith N. Zur’s Violent Memories, published in 1998, is a brilliant ethnography rooted in more traditional gender courses than those of Green’s and Nelson’s books; however, it solves the challenges it presents by researching on Guatemala and writing about nowadays Guatemala. Zur has worked as clinical psychologist and family therapist, apart from being trained in anthropology. Knowledge and experience allow her a deeper view of the impact of violence against subversion on communities and individuals. The author is especially interested in the Mayan women of Emol (the word is a pseudonym), a K’iche village in the south region of the El Quiché department in the center of Guatemala. She combines an ethnographic approach of Emol and the caseríos [groups of huts] around it, with that of the life stories of five exceptional women, all of whom are included in the group of widows of Emol,5 whose age and personality differences become quite evident. We see and feel the various reactions to the tragic loss they have suffered and the misfortunes they have had to endure.

The first three chapters create the framework to describe and analyze the impact of the Guatemalan State’s campaign against Marxists, left-wing factions, and eventually its own Indigenous population. The introductory chapter is followed by others that place Emol and the K’iche in the context of regional and national history, of politics and culture, and describe the Mayan relationships between the sexes. Despite the fact that men occupied more leadership positions, and that they perceived themselves as superior to women and that they often incurred in extramarital relationships, the author shows the true power and authority of the K’iche women in the performance of their roles, institutionalized in the civic and religious hierarchy. The author also claims that, in the second half of the XX century, we have witnessed the fall of women’s position due to the increasing influence of the protestant sects, often “fundamentalist”, which marginalize women because they consider them useless for leadership positions. In her opinion, work-related migrations and the diffusion of institutional violence have nourished this marginalization and have provoked an intensified tension in conjugal relationships and family life.

Chapters 4 and 5 describe the inhuman civil war in Guatemala. Chapter 4 documents the facts that took place between 1978 and 1982 when the Guatemalan State began its campaign to cleanse from all its subversive elements. Chapter 5 covers from 1932 to 1984 and it shows how the Guatemalan witnessed the development of a rougher violence, as the civil patrol system gained importance; in this system people patrolled their communities, robbing and killing their neighbors. This section represents a very valuable ethnography of the Indigenous man military experience, in which the participation of the Indigenous man in these patrols is portrayed, as well as the repercussions of war that make the participants, especially patrol leaders, keep having an intimidating presence which is at the same time afraid of the widows publicly exposing them or searching supernatural punishment for them.

Understanding how this war was performed and how it caused a high level of tension among inhabitants of a same village provides basis to examine the challenges the widows faced to be able to economically and socially rebuild their life (chapter 6), and to remember and understand the events that took place and how they affected those who had to endure their psychological effects (chapter 7). All this happened in circumstances in which the State tired to deny and repress memories. The following chapters examine the still chaotic results of this war, whose surreal levels of violence and horror are clearly narrated by Zur. Chapter 8 contemplates death and the horrific consequences of disappearances and clandestine burials of family members and friends, whose specific fate was many times unknown. The author deals with the psychic, physical and social price of mass denial of death, sanctioned by the State that automatically banned the performance of customary funerary practices. Not performing typical funerals and burials left the surviving K’iches competing with the wandering and tormented souls of the dead. These spirits “form a new sort of patrol, becoming another terrifying presence, persecuting the living just like the local jefes”.6

Chapters 9 and 10 analyze how the K’iches try to understand their recent violent past: they explain why their loved ones were murdered and how most of the explanations (both political and supernatural) do not alleviate the suffering of the widows. In chapter 10, Zur presents a cultural analysis of the K’iches’ changing concepts of danger and shows that the high level of tension introduced by the Guatemalan army and the local patrols to their life intensified the fear of witchcraft and spirits, which undermined the institutions and community cohesion. The last chapter describes the events that took place in 1993 when exhumations were performed in Emol and an investigation was carried on by commissions constituted by high level members of the Church and the State.7 None of these investigations nor the foundation of the Coordinación Nacional de Viudas Guatemaltecas (Conavigua) [National Coordination of Guatemalan Widows] –useful and encouraging as these events usually are- can change reality for the inhabitants of Emol studied by Zur, because having lived “the horror of doing things to each other that they had previously believed only ladinos capable of. Worse, they know they could be made to do it again”.8 This ethnography is the best I have read in a long time; the sensible work of the author says a lot of what life is to the population –mostly rural-, of the Guatemalan Indians after the war. Her analysis also suggests that Rwanda and Serbia, devastated by war (to name only two areas that are currently trying to live with the consequences of fratricide wars) will not be able to heal at an individual, community or national level for a long time.

Although Green’s and Nelson’s books do not reach the depth of vision Zur’s does, their works nonetheless substantially contribute to the anthropological understanding of nowadays Guatemala. Fear as a Way of Life by Linda Green resembles Zur’s book in theme. She studies the community of Xe’caj (also a pseudonym), a village of Kaqchiquel language, in the mountains of Chimaltenango department’s center. With the attention more focused on the survival strategies of the widows, Green also deals with biographic history in her work. In the first part, “A Legacy of Violence”, she lays the foundations for her approach on the widows. Very much influenced by the recent current of cultural materialistic theory, Green uses her readings of Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, among others, to analyze what she sees as a dialectic relationship between change and continuity. She shares the common concern in many ethnographies written in the past two decades, especially by American scholars, about ethics and the responsibilities deriving from research and written works, and she justifies her work (in the first chapter that states the theoretical, thematic and cultural context of her book) declaring that she has the responsibility of narrating her experiences. Her desire to do this becomes more touching because her informers believe that if they share their stories, the injustice of the recent past may be corrected or, as they say: “If people knew what was happening to us, they would do something about it”.9

The following chapter details the history of Guatemala’s Altiplano and emphasizes that although the recent past has been horrifying, the Indigenous groups of this country have suffered for a long time the structural violence imposed by centuries of racism and economical exploitation as well as by cycles of political repression. This is why Green emphasizes the continuity of violence patterns in Guatemala, while Zur emphasizes rupture. In the same way, Green shows how Guatemala has been the battlefield between the Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianism, and this fact has had its own corrosive repercussions inside the Indigenous communities even when the converted ones find sense, relief and encouragement in Evangelic teachings. The third chapter documents what it means to live in an atmosphere of terror both for the ethnographers and to the villagers, an atmosphere dominated by secrecy and silence imposed by the government that refuses to force the military to answer for their actions.

The second part, “A Legacy of Survival”, begins with an examination of marital commitments, marriage and widow state in Xe’caj (capítulo 4). Like some others, Green believes that the introduction of capitalism has weakened the economic man-woman complementarity,10 but she also documents the economic position of widows who suffer, apart from the loss of family members, the loss of homes, fields and personal belongings. In a small section, she details the attempts of various organizations to provide economic assistance and social support to these women. She shows that, although these projects and organizations occasionally managed to change the economic circumstances of the widows, they often helped Mayan women to reflect on their own identity in a broader context, more historical and cultural.

The last three chapters deal with several aspects of the widows’ adaptation to the new family, community and political realities with which they have to live. Chapter 5 reports the psychological and physical consequences of loss and suffering; it is less detailed than Zur’s treatment of the same issue, partly because Green never fully approaches the local belief systems before, during and after the years of more intensified violence. Chapter 6 considers the action of weaving as a means of expression of Mayan feminine identity, apart from being a way of making a living, encouraged by small non-governmental organizations and a few local cooperatives.

Chapter 7 deals with the influence of Evangelical protestant sects, with five or six of them competing every night for more followers in Xe’caj and the nearby communities. This is one of the best two chapters of the book and in it the author proves that conversion and affiliation are two different phenomena, and she describes the reasons why Guatemalan Indians, especially women, find these sects so attractive. She argues that although there is a connection between the repressive elite of Guatemala and the foreign fundamentalist missionaries, particularly encouraged by General Efraín Ríos Montt (former dictator and the actual power behind the election of the new Guatemalan president –right-wing populist-, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera), other factors explain the conversion more satisfactorily. From economic reasons (at the top of which there is the desire to avoid the obligations of brotherhoods), to the possibility of collectively expressing emotions in a healthy way (eg. depoliticized), but at the same time in a community and spiritual way, the widows find access to the possibility of healing from their wounds whereas the fundamentalist rejection to alcohol helps them to deal with specific problems of their life. Green sees the protestant sects more as religions that offer survival messages and relief from suffering than as religions of repression or as economic opportunities.11 She considers them a way to deal with the evident division of the community, documented both by Green and Zur, sequel of the violence of the seventies and eighties. The main topic of Green’s last chapter evidences the survival strategies of the widows. At the same time, this chapter restates that the recent civil war, in spite of being much more horrid, takes place over a violent historic past with which the Mayan communities have had to deal for a long time.

Diane M. Nelson’s book, A Finger in the Wound, focuses on Guatemala’s present and deals with the Mayan’s attempt to create a strong presence in the fragmented political environment of postwar Guatemala. The author displays an astonishing order of rhetoric and theoretical readings, but even if the book is very informative, it leaves the reader disturbed due to its self-centered tone.

Nelson starts by explaining the use of the metaphor of the wounded body as a symbol of the troublesome nature of Guatemala’s nationalism. It offers ethnography of a growing movement of Indigenous rights mainly concentrated in 1992, year of the quincentennial. Nelson’s methods to study this diverse and diffuse movement are based on the years she lived in Guatemala and on the time she spent working with Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas, serving as an interpreter to Rigoberta Menchú during three meetings of international Indigenous issues and organizing support for Mayan activists in the United States. Alternating between the concepts of the wounds of individual bodies and tose of the political body of Guatemala, her chapters are also based in the concept of fluidarity. She uses this term to note the ambiguity, contradictions and constant change that characterizes the political and cultural atmosphere in Guatemala, as well as its rejection to binary categories. After an introductory chapter that briefly deals with the history and cultural panorama of Guatemala, the second chapter titled “Gringa Positioning, Vulnerable Bodies, and Fluidarity: A Partial Relation” –which gives us a hint on the way she titles the chapters-, goes through a description of her experiences and those of others, as gringas in Guatemala. It uses the beating suffered by an American tourist in an Indigenous village of the Altiplano as the lens through which she describes her own experiences, and she concludes that the American -anthropologists, activists and others from the left wing- must abandon all remaining hopes of a trouble-free solidarity with the Indigenous groups, among which the American fantasize of finding only heroines, never villains.12

Chapters 3 and 4 detail the relationship nature of the Guatemalan State with the Mayan and the attempts of the latter to influence, even to participate, in the State. The ambivalence of the State towards the Mayan population is, according to Nelson, best represented by the reactions of the State and the elite towards the Peace Nobel Prize Paz being granted to Rigoberta Menchú, and this is the topic of the fifth chapter. Nelson makes use of openly spread cruel, racist and sexist jokes about Menchú to show how the life and political projects of this activist undermine the attempts of the State to use Mayan women as the tamed image of a picturesque, safe and traditional Guatemala. Despite the disconcerting humor of this section of the book (and Nelson’s intention clearly is to make us feel uncomfortable), the following chapter, “Bodies That Splatter”: Gender, “Race” and the Discourse of “Mestizaje” returns the reader to the violence of Colonial Guatemala and of its most recent past. Nelson analyzes how Guatemala’s ladino population defines and understands national identities as constituted by race and ethnia. She uses the book by the Guatemalan anthropologist Marta Casaus Arzú, Guatemala: linaje y racismo, -in which it is argued that elite families in Guatemala used a racist ideology (and strict intermarriage) to maintain their domain of the economic and political power since the period of the Colony-, to show that the binarial racist ideology is still rooted in the fictional idea that the population is either white or Indigenous, instead of mestizo. She also states the precepts of gender that make part of the elite’s reasoning on race. Understanding that these ideas have their origin in the belief that the white woman is pure and the Indigenous woman is sexually aggressive by nature contributes to undermine any conceptualization of a unifying mestizo cultural identity for the Guatemalan population.

Chapters 7 and 8 study the Mayan activist groups; in them it is analyzed how they make use of modern visual and sound technology as well as computers to communicate with their communities, cities of Guatemala and also abroad. Nelson also examines how these groups fought to put pressure on the Guatemalan government for the ratification of Convention 169 of the UN’s International Labour Organization on the rights of Indigenous and tribal people in independent countries. Chapter 8 studies this topic offering the best description in the book of the interaction of the Mayan activist groups with the government of Guatemala; it narrates how these groups exercised pressure, successfully, so that this document could become a law. However, Nelson warns that this may have contradictory results because the Indigenous groups may be introduced in the State apparatus or the State institutions may be invited to make part of said groups (or both processes may take place simultaneously). The final chapter reviews the impact in Guatemala of structural adjustments; it particularly analyzes the impact of new types of tasks (non-traditional exports, tourism and textiles) in work division by gender, similar to the continuous use of Mayan women as symbols of peace. Nelson weaves gender as a topic along her portrait of a complex and very instable political stage, and we barely find information on the Mayan political activists, except for Rigoberta Menchú, thus we wonder if this challenging and disconcerting book provides enough ethnographic details to be able to answer the many fascinating questions it poses.

The three books we have reviewed share several topics although they differ a little on subject and methodology. It is evident the interest that each author has in women and gender, and each of them develops it based on her own readings of feminist anthropology from the seventies and eighties. Zur and Green provide a woman-centered analysis in which the life of the woman dominates the text. Nelson does not place woman at the center of her analysis, although she treats Rigoberta Menchú as a key character on Guatemala’s political stage and she examines the point up to which the issue of gender is rooted in the concepts of race, class and ethnia. These books show the degree up to which anthropology has accepted the feminine figure as something completely legitimate. On the contrary, when concentrating so much on women, Zur’s and Green’s books ironically pose the question: where are men? At least Zur provides us with some material on the military experiences of men, but many questions remain unanswered. What is the long-term effect of Guatemala’s civil war, of the high casualty number, in the political and class structures of Indigenous communities? What influence did military experience have in the Mayan’s definition of masculinity? How are Mayan men dealing with the economical changes of the eighties and nineties? How was life for the survivors, especially for the children? An anthropology of man is, paradoxically, a necessary result of an anthropology of woman, but it will be totally different from the previous ethnographic studies that, easily (subconsciously, actually), placed man at the center of the analysis. Problematizing masculinity means analyzing the life of men and the interrelations and separations between the cultural concepts of masculinity, sexuality, race, class and ethnia. When posing these questions, these three books represent a starting point for Guatemala.

Apart from the challenge faced by contemporary anthropology of focusing more closely on a whole range of gender experiences, it is before another challenge, that of taking as base the study of individual localities in order to examine regional, national and transnational change processes. Each author uses a different strategy regarding place and locality. Zur uses the more traditional of these strategies when she studies an individual village and the nearby caseríos. However, she places more efficiently this area within a broader regional and national history and she provides the most accurate description of the war period. Her books provides the reader with a deep understanding of the relationship between the history of Emol and that of recent Guatemala, especially the causes and the social impact of the intense fratricidal violence. Linda Green also studies a specific place, but she often generalizes when she deals with the tongue of “the Mayan”, using her research to tell the story of Indigenous Guatemala more than that of a particular community or region. Although her book contains valuable knowledge, it is not a book we read to gain a level of understanding of violence per se. Nelson applies a very different method than that of Zur’s or Green’s and she does not try to perform a community study. Partly an urban ethnography that describes people and events in the city of Guatemala, and partly a postmodern reflection of the problematic nationalism of Guatemala, this is a book about concepts of identity and not about life as it is lived in specific places.

A Finger in the Wound also poses a question on whether a postmodern ethnography with such a fluid structure may provide an adequate representation of the historic forces that created the Guatemala of the beginning of the nineties. For being a book that emphasizes the continuity of change, it intriguingly lacks historic and cultural context, providing only the most superficial narration of the war period and the relationships of the Mayan with the army and the guerrillas. The catastrophic internal division of the communities that are discussed in an important part of the scholars’ literature of the eighties and nineties probably influenced the work of contemporary Mayan activist groups, but Nelson comments very little on that partiality.13

In fact, a deeper and more extensive historical perspective could lead us to question how much the political situation of the Guatemalan Indian –man or woman- will actually change. “What is the political future of a population that first learned about democratic participation in the revolutionary decade of 1944-54, only to have it snatched away by a CIA-backed coup, and to have been brought by frustration into active revolt, only to have it result in the slaughter of 1975-85?”14 The election of Alfonso Portillo Cabrera through a process in which 63 of the Guatemalan population did not vote,15 suggests that even when things start changing (such as the struggle of Mayan activists to obtain a place in the Guatemalan State), they will remain exactly the same.

Susan Kellogg
Departamento de Historia [History Department].
University of Houston.

  1. This article was translated from English by Ana María Paredes. The books referred to in the essay are: Linda Green, Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Diane M. Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); and Judith N. Zur, Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala (Boulder: Westview Press), 1998.338 pp. []
  2. Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds., Woman, Culture, and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974: 282-99). Another innovative feminist anthropological text followed a year later, Rayne Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1975). []
  3. Important recent works on Mayan women that add detail to the brief picture provided by Paul include works by Laurel Herbener Bossen, The Redivision of Labor: Women and Economic Choice in Four Guatemalan Communities (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984); Christine Eber, Women and Alcohol in a Highland Mayan Town: Water of Hope, Water of Sorrow (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995); Tracy Bachrach Ehlers, Silent Looms: Women and Production in a Guatemalan Town (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990); Rosalba Aida Hernández, La otra palabra: mujer y violencia en Chiapas, antes y después de Acteal (Mexico: CIESAS/COLEM/CIAM, 1998); Brenda Rosenbaum, With Our Heads Bowed: The Dynamics of Gender in a Mayan Community (Albany: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, 1993); and Guiomar Rovira, Mujeres de Maiz (México: Era, 1997). []
  4. Among the discussions dealing with the increasing engagement between anthropology and history are those of Aletta Biersack, “Local Knowledge, Local History: Geertz and Beyond”, in Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, pp.72-96); Bernard Cohn, An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987); John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992); James D. Faubion, “History in Anthropology”, in Bernard J. Siegel, Alan Beals, and Stephen Tyler, eds., Annual Review of Anthropology 22 (Palo Alto, 1993, pp.35-54); Susan Kellogg, “Histories for Anthropology: Ten Years of Historical Research and Writing by Anthropologists”, in Eric H. Monkkonnen, ed., Engaging the Past: The Uses of History across the Social Sciences (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994, pp.9-47); Shepard Krech III, “The State of Ethnohistory”, in Bernard Siegel, Alan Beals, and Stephen Tyler, eds., Annual Review of Anthropology 20 (Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, 1991, pp.345-75); Emiko Ohnuki Tierney, ed., Culture through Time: Anthropological Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); and William Roseberry, ed., Anthropologies and Histories: Essays in Culture, History and Political Economy (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989). Recent discussions of the anthropology of war include Anna Simons in “War: Back to the Future”, in William H. Durham, E. Valentine Daniel, and Bambi B. Schieffelin, eds., Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, 1999:pp. 73-108). On poverty, see the monumental ethnographic study by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). Some recent ethnographic studies of the Mayan population of Guatemala (by North American authors) include Edward Fisher and R. McKenna Brown, eds., Maya Activism in Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992); and Kay Warren, Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Murdo J. MacLeod has reviewed recent Historical writings about Guatemala in “Archival Empiricism, or Fine New Wine in Solid Old Bottles: Recent Writing on the History of Guatemala, Colonial Latin American Review 8(1), 1999:pp.139-44. See also the recent book by Greg Grandin, The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). []
  5. Studies of gender among that Mayan that focus on specific women’s lives originated with the work of Gretchen Elmendorf in her book Nine Maya Women: A Village Faces Change (NY: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1976). []
  6. Judith N. Zur, Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala, 1998, p.224. []
  7. The environment of terror that Zur describes continues until today and is well documented by the brutal assassination, still unresolved, of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998, who headed the project, Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI) sponsored by the Catholic Chuch. He was killed just two days after the report was made public. []
  8. Zur, op. cit., 1998, p.309. []
  9. Linda Green, Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala, 1999, p.21. []
  10. Bossen, op. cit., 1984; Ehlers, op. cit., 1990. []
  11. Green, op. cit., 1999, p.165. []
  12. Diane M. Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala, 1999, p.62. []
  13. In a sense, such divisions are the theme of the controversial book by David Stoll, Rioberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999). On factionalism, also see, in addition to Fisher and Brown, op. cit., and Warren, op. cit., Harvest of Violence: The Mayan Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis, edited by Robert Carmack, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988); and Carol A. Smith, ed., Guatemalan Indians and the State, 1540-1988 (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1990). []
  14. Richard N. Adams, “Conclusions: What Can We Know About the Harvest of Violence?” in Carmack, op.cit., p. 291. []
  15. La Jornada, “Editorial”, 28 de diciembre de 1999. []

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